Farmers personally deliver ag labor reform message to Congress

 

 

Oct. 28, 2013—Washington cherry and apple grower Jon Wyss is one of dozens of farmers, dairymen and ranchers in Washington, D.C., this week to make the case for House action on responsible immigration reform that addresses agriculture’s significant labor challenges.  For Wyss and other farmers across the country, finding workers to care for and harvest their crops or help care for their animals is a constant struggle. 

“We’re 30 miles from the Canadian border, so it’s a long haul to get labor up here,” Wyss said.  With the labor situation growing more dire over the past few years, many farmers in Wyss’ Okanogan County gave the current federal ag labor program, H-2A, a try, but found little relief. 

“After the first six months, they can’t deal with the bureaucracy of it, so they drop out and work with a hope and a prayer,” Wyss said. 

Despite high national unemployment, most Americans are not interested in the long, difficult hours that come with farm and ranch work.  Migrant laborers, on the other hand, are ready, willing and quite able.  Many have years of experience.   

Doug Leman, executive director of the Indiana Dairy Producers, is also in the nation’s capital this week.  As a dairyman, Leman couldn’t participate in the H-2A program.  Instead, he tried again and again to hire locals to work at his dairy.

“We were constantly hiring and training, hiring and training,” said Leman, who sold his dairy in 2010.  That didn’t work for anyone, so Leman moved to migrant workers, who he found reliable and skilled.   

With Senate passage in June of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744) and the House’s early efforts on immigration reform, Wyss said he’s more optimistic than ever about getting a bill on the president’s desk. 

The Senate legislation is considered by farmers and ranchers to be a balanced immigration reform package that includes fair and workable farm labor provisions.  The House, meanwhile, is dealing with the various aspects of immigration reform, such as labor and border security, in a series of bills. 

“We need to recognize the House’s step-by-step approach and work with it,” Wyss said.  “Without a House bill, we can’t get to conference.”

No matter how it’s done, Wyss said the ag labor provisions of any reform bill should tackle three key areas: providing an adequate labor supply, offering at-will and contract options for farm workers, establishing a stable wage rate and addressing undocumented migrant workers. 

Leman, too, focused on the need for Congress to do something about the workers who are here now.  He also said lawmakers should move toward allowing migrant workers to stay in the country for an extended period of time, after which they could return to their home countries. 

 

To a large extent, the Senate legislation meets Wyss’ and Leman’s criteria.  The Farm Bureau-supported bill includes a Blue Card program for current experienced farm workers and a new agricultural visa program to meet future labor needs. These provisions are intended to ensure producers can keep their experienced but undocumented workers and will replace the current H-2A guest worker program with a program with more flexibility. The measure also provides increased surveillance of high-risk areas along our borders.

Farmers and ranchers are not alone in their efforts this week to urge Congress to move immigration reform legislation forward this year.  They are joined by other business owners, faith leaders, law enforcement officials and conservatives as part of a loose coalition known as Americans for Reform. 

 

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